Wonderstruck (2017)


Sometimes the most exciting adventures can start on the other side of a closed door.

(2017) Drama (Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Jaden Michael, Amy Hargreaves, Morgan Turner, Ekaterina Samsonov, Lilianne Rojek, John Boyd, Cory Michael Smith, James Urbaniak, Anthony Natale, John P. McGinty, Damian Young, Sawyer Niehaus, Raul Torres, Lauren Ridloff. Directed by Todd Haynes

 

The difference between childish and childlike is the difference between being self-focused and being struck by wonder. In the former, all we can think about is our immediate desires; in the latter, the world is fresh and new and worthy of exploration. Deep down, all of us yearn to be wonder struck.

It is 1977 and Ben (Fegley) is grieving the loss of his mother (Williams) in a car accident. He doesn’t know who his father is and his mother refused to discuss the matter, wanting him to wait until he was older but she passed before she could tell him what he wants, what he needs to know. Sent to live with his aunt (Hargreaves), he sometimes sneaks back to his old house to immerse himself in the things that surrounded him. There he finds a clue to his father’s identity on a bookmark with a New York City address, a far journey from his Gunflint, Minnesota address. On his way back to his aunt’s, he is struck by lightning and left deaf.

It is 1927 and Rose (Simmonds) has been deaf all her life. Her overbearing father (Urbaniak) wants her to learn how to lip read but she’s having none of the tedious lessons from an insensitive teacher. She is obsessed with silent screen star Lillian Mayhew (Moore) who is performing on Broadway so she leaves her Hoboken, NJ mansion and runs away to the city to see her idol.

Both of these children will encounter New York’s Museum of Natural History – the one where the displays come to life after dark if such things can be believed. Both will be captivated by similar displays and both are connected over time without knowing it.

Haynes is an extraordinary visual director who tends to favor films that are concerned with transformative experiences, so in a sense this is right in his wheelhouse but at the same time it’s a bit of a departure for him. The film is a lot more mainstream than his films normally are – although his last one, Carol, was Oscar-nominated and was at least a modest success but it certainly couldn’t be described accurately as “mainstream.”

Some distinctions need to be made here; this is a film about children but it isn’t a children’s film. While some kids who are a bit more eclectic in their cinematic taste might appreciate it, it is adults who are going to find more magic here than the younger set. Haynes has always had a really good sense of era; the 1977 sequences are in garish color and as Ben emerges from a trash-strewn Port Authority to the strains of Deodato’s funky version of Also Sprach Zarathustra which is perfect for the moment. We see New York in a moment where it is grimy, gritty and harsh, a city decaying from its grandeur but still confident in its greatness. The 1927 sequences are in black and white and are silent which is also appropriate; in these sequences New York is magical, the center of the world, the place everyone wants to be and for good reason. Haynes and editor Alfonso Gonçalves skillfully weave the two stories into a viable whole without jarring the audience, a masterful feat.

Here I must mention the music. I’ve never been a huge Carter Burwell fan but this is by far his most brilliant score to date. It is the kind of music that breaks the heart and centers the viewer in both eras. The use of period music, particularly in the more recent sequence, is near-perfection and hearing two era-appropriate versions of David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” shows not only intelligent planning on the matter of music but a good deal of intuition. I don’t often buy film scores but I just might this one.

This is based on a book by Brian Selznick (who also did the book that spawned Martin Scorsese’s Hugo) and Selznick wrote the screenplay. I haven’t read the book but judging on what I saw on screen it couldn’t have been an easy adaptation. I do have some complaints about the film however; there were a few too many plot contrivances that made this feel like one of the Disney Channel’s weaker efforts at times and distracted from the overall magic of the film. Also Fegley was somewhat over-the-top in his performance; he should have been instructed to dial things down somewhat. Simmonds was much more effective in her role. Moore, who has collaborated with Haynes on four films now, shines as the silent film star but more so in a mystery role that she appears in near the film’s conclusion – more I will not tell you.

Capturing the sense of wonder of childhood is no easy task and Haynes can be forgiven if he wasn’t always entirely successful. We do get a sense of the frustration that physical limitations can put on someone and while this isn’t the definitive story about deafness, it is at least one that I think that the non-hearing community will appreciate. I wasn’t quite wonder struck by Wonderstruck but I did appreciate it and I do recommend it and I think that you will enjoy it if you give it half a chance.

REASONS TO GO: The score is amazing. Making the 1920s sequences silent and black and white is very clever.
REASONS TO STAY: Fegley is a little bit hammy. Overall the movie is a bit Disney Channel-esque.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are a little bit on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simmonds is deaf in real life; her performance so moved Will Smith at the film’s Cannes screening that he personally congratulated the young actress.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life in Wartime
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Murder in Mansfield

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Stronger


Love makes us stronger.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patricia O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Katherine Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati, Sean McGuirk, Karen Scalia, Judith McIntyre, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, Cassandra Cato Louis, Rena Maliszewski. Directed by David Gordon Green

 

In the aftermath of tragedy, it is perhaps the glory of humanity that we rise up and overcome. Even the most horrific of circumstances can bring out our resilience to an almost miraculous degree. It is in these situations that we as a species ten to show the most grace.

Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a working class guy from Chelmsford who lives and breathes Boston sports, carves roast chicken at a local Costco and hangs out with his friends after work. There is the matter of a girl, Erin Hurley (Maslany) whom Jeff is absolutely crazy about but he always seems to find a way to mess it up. She justifiably complains that he never shows up; he promises that this time, he will.

This time is at the Boston Marathon in which she is running; he promises to show up, awaiting her at the finish line with a goofy sign. Well, this time he shows up and happens to be standing right next to one of the homemade bombs that went off at the 2013 Marathon. Both his legs are blown off by the blast. When he wakes up in the hospital and is informed about the extent of his injuries, he cracks a joke about being Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.

He is unprepared for the public adulation that comes from being a survivor. An iconic photo of him being cared for by an unknown man in a cowboy hat (Sanz) has made him a celebrity. His blowzy mom (Richardson) is all about using his new-found fame to his advantage. Erin, overwhelmed by guilt, reconnects with him and becomes nurse and lover.

But Jeff is not the most mature of men to begin with and he self-medicates as the pressures of fame and the pain of physical therapy begin to become unbearable. He has become a symbol but he doesn’t want to be one; he is not interested in offering hope to the people of Boston and his old habits that tore him and Erin apart initially begin to resurface.

David Gordon Green is one of those directors who seem to have a loyal hardcore following but rarely gets the recognition he deserves. This is probably his most commercial film yet (which considering that one of his movies is The Pineapple Express is saying something) and certainly his most accessible.

He pushes all the right buttons here but admirably doesn’t make the film as cliché-ridden as it might be. He keeps things low-key and realistic. Bauman is far from heroic for most of this although by the end of the movie he seems to be accepting his role and begins to use it in a positive way.

Gyllenhaal is at the center of the film. He has become a regular contender for Oscar gold and this performance might very well put him in the mix again this year. He makes Jeff very human, very vulnerable and very flawed and yet charming enough with just enough heart o’ gold kinda stuff that we root for him even as his drunken antics and commitment phobia make us clench our collective teeth. One must also point out that the CGI that renders Gyllenhaal as legless is some of the most seamless and well done I’ve seen.

Maslany has been acclaimed for her performances in Orphan Black, shows that she has the chops to become a serious movie actress. She is much more low-key than Gyllenhaal here but she is really the heart and soul of the film. She is wracked by guilt, knowing if not for her that Jeff wouldn’t have been in harm’s way that Patriot’s Day. She recognizes that deep down Jeff has a good soul but he is also weak and this kind of burden doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future of a relationship but as long as he is trying, she knows she must hang in there for him.

The supporting cast is pretty strong as well, with particular kudos to British actress Richardson as Jeff’s overbearing mom and veteran character actor Clancy Brown as his estranged Dad. They are a bit New England Working Class typecast, but not knowing Bauman’s family at all I have to think that there is at least a germ of truth in there at least.

This isn’t always an easy film to watch. The movie doesn’t really dwell on the crime so much as the recovery and that’s a good thing – you can always watch Patriots Day if you are more interested in the hunt for the bombers. Still, the filmmakers pull no punches. We don’t get treated to endless scenes of agonizing physical therapy but more Bauman’s reaction to it. He becomes depressed and frightened of the staggering unwanted responsibilities he is forced to face. And he turns away from it, until he finally agrees – reluctantly I might add – to meet the angel of mercy who helped him on the worst day of his life.

Bauman doesn’t change overnight although it’s pretty close. There is certainly a turning point and it seems that Bauman makes a decision to live and be the kind of man he always had the potential to be. While I might question the night and day presentation of Bauman’s change of heart, there’s no doubt judged by his activities of late that there was one – a determination to become better. That’s what true strength is.

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal could have an outside shot at an Oscar nomination. The CGI is absolutely perfect. The film is emotionally gritty and cathartic. The portrayal of Jeff Bauman pulls no punches.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is occasionally guilty of being a bit manipulative.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of profanity, some disturbing images of carnage, violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The release date for the film comes on co-star Tatiana Maslany’s 32nd birthday.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
TBA

The Only Living Boy in New York


Reflections in my mind.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Tate Donovan, Wallace Shawn, Anh Duong, Debi Mazar, Ben Hollandsworth, John Bolger, Bill Camp, Richard Bekins, Ryan Speakman, Oliver Thornton, Alexander Sokovikov, Ed Jewett, Amy Hohn. Directed by Marc Webb

 

It is not uncommon for young people to finish college or drop out of college and end up feeling adrift. Okay, I’m done with school; now what? It’s an exciting and frightening concept at the same time.

Thomas Webb (Turner) – and to be sure, it’s Thomas and not Tommy or Tom – is in just such a pickle. He is the son of successful publisher Ethan (Brosnan) and artist Judith (Nixon) and has not quite moved back in with them but has taken an apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from his parents on the Upper East Side (and true New Yorkers will know that they might be not far away but they are worlds apart).

He’s not sure what to do with his life. He wants to be a writer but his publisher dad dismissed his work as “serviceable.” His mom is fragile emotionally and seems on the verge of falling apart. He is very much in love with Mimi (Clemons) who is more interested in a platonic relationship with him and to make matters worse, is headed for an internship in Slovakia. Thomas is trying to make some sense out of his life; fortunately, he meets W.F. Gerald (Bridges), a writer who lives in apartment 2B of his building (by extension meaning that Thomas lives in not 2B – think about it).. W.F. is kind of rough around the edges but he takes a fatherly interest in Thomas, which suits Thomas just fine since his own dad is distant to say the least.

But Thomas’ world begins to spin completely out of control when he discovers that his dad is having an affair. He becomes obsessed with the mystery lady and discovers that her name is Johanna (Beckinsale) and that she works as a contractor in Ethan’s office. Thomas confronts Johanna and tells her to stop seeing his dad; the cool and collected Johanna responds that what Thomas is really saying is that he wants to sleep with Johanna himself. As it turns out, she’s right.

Thomas is caught up in a dilemma and he doesn’t know how to get out of it. The hypocrisy of his situation isn’t lost on him and so he decides to tell his dad that he knows about Johanna and furthermore, he’s sleeping with her himself. However, this revelation threatens to destroy Thomas’ family altogether leading the way for another stunning revelation that changes Thomas’ life forever.

The critics have been pretty much panning this which is a bit of a shame; it’s not a flawless film but I ended up liking it. Bridges is absolutely wonderful as W.F. and Beckinsale is sexy as all get out as the Other Woman. The dialogue has also been called tin-eared but I found it pretty sharp most of the time. I know, this isn’t the way real people talk – but it’s the way sophisticated New York literary sorts talk. Make of that what you will.

The main trouble here is Turner. His character is wishy-washy, vindictive and fully self-involved. There’s nothing mature about him – and yet the sophisticated literary type ends up sleeping with him and later in the film, another woman falls in love with him. ‘Course, I’m not a woman but I find it absolutely flabbergasting that any woman would see him as the object of love. He offers nothing but immaturity and leaps to conclusion that rival Evel Knieval flying over Snake River Gorge.

And yet they do. Then again, there’s a bit of a literati soap opera feel to the whole thing. It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to create drama. This is very Noo Yawk which may put some folks off on it – there are certain parts of the country where being from the Big Apple is a hanging offense. Some have compared this to the Woody Allen of the 90s which is not Allen’s best creative period; I can see the Allen comparison but I would push it back a decade.

The soundtrack is a bit eclectic but in a good way; you get Simon and Garfunkel (including the title song) and Dylan, both of whom evoke New York City in a certain era although this is set in modern day. The cast also overcomes some of the script’s flaws, particularly Bridges, Beckinsale and Nixon who does fragile about as well as anybody. There is some charm here, enough to make it a worthwhile alternative to late August film programming. This won’t be for everyone but it might just be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges is absolutely delightful. The dialogue is sharp. There’s some strong music on the soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Turner is completely unconvincing in the lead role. Could be a little too New York literati for most
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a bit of drug-related material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second 2017 film with a title shared with a Simon and Garfunkel song (Baby Driver was the first).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Graduate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Everything, Everything

Lady Macbeth


Here comes the bride.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdjik, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows, Nicholas Lumley, Raymond Finn, Ian Conningham, Finn Burridge, Jack Robertson, Kima Sikazwe, Elliott Sinclair, Andrew Davis, Alan Billingham, Joseph Teague. Directed by William Oldroyd

 

In A Chorus Line, Cassie warbles “Can’t forget, won’t regret what I did for love.” The sentiment strikes a chord in most of us; we mostly will do just about anything for love. If all is fair in love and war as the saying goes, some of us will do unspeakable things for love.

Katherine (Pugh) really doesn’t know what love is and she wants someone to show her. The daughter of hard economic times, her family essentially sold her to wealthy Alexander (Hilton) and more to the point, his cold and demanding father Boris (Fairbank). She is treated pretty much like chattel, ordered to stay indoors – fresh air apparently being anathema to both father and son, although I suspect it is more of a control thing than a health thing.

When both Alexander and Boris are called away from the chilly, drafty home in the north of England on business, Katherine asserts herself as the lady of the manor, going out on long walks on the moor. Her Anglo-African maid Anna (Ackie), who is mostly mute, is witness to her transgressions but seems sympathetic. One afternoon she rescues a nude Anna from the abuse of the stable staff, particularly from Sebastian (Jarvis), an arrogant groomer. He later creeps into her room, presumably to rape her but she ends up seducing him and the two begin a torrid affair. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

When Boris returns home, he is nearly apoplectic and Katherine realizes that while her father-in-law and husband (who hasn’t consummated their marriage yet – to date all he’s done is masturbate while she stands naked facing the wall) live, she can never be with Sebastian. She therefore embarks on a course that is born out of equal parts desperation and terrible resolve.

Oldroyd – whose name sounds like a Jane Austen character – is known mostly for his stage direction, but you’d never know it here. Even though much of the action is limited to the fairly large house, the film never feels stagey although it is occasionally claustrophobic – purposely so, as no doubt Katherine is feeling restrained.

Initially, this feels like an adaptation of an Austen novel – I was surprised to discover that it’s actually an adaptation of a Russian novel – but as the movie wears on the feel changes. During the course of the movie Katherine does increasingly terrible things to the point where it becomes hard to have any sort of rooting interest in her. I began to think of the film as Quentin Tarantino’s Jane Austen – this is very much how I would imagine that Tarantino would direct an Austen-like thriller.

The pacing is pretty stately; at times it seems like the storyline is barely moving at all. There are endless scenes of Katherine sitting in boredom watching the clock on the wall or falling asleep. The point is made, Mr. Oldroyd. There are also elements of the story that are rather bewildering; Katherine, for example, being sexually attracted to a man who is obviously an utter bastard; how quickly she turns upon people who she supposedly cares about. At the end of the day, she ends up being an utter sociopath and because of her social status, society assumes that her claims are true and those of her servants are lies.

This is very much a class-conscious film and given that Sebastian is of mixed ancestry and that Anna is fully of African descent adds the race card in addition to the class card.. The most sympathy is reserved for Anna who really gets the shaft at the end of the film – something that African-American audiences know only too well. We even end up with some sympathy for Sebastian although once you think about what a rotten human being he is at the beginning of the film, that sympathy is somewhat tempered.

The acting here is actually quite swell and this may very well be a breakout role for Pugh. She has to play a role that is both sympathetic and not; at first, she is treated like a possession, little more than a slave to her husband and father-in-law and an ornament who is  meant to shine brightly without making much noise. However as her evil deeds begin to multiply it is difficult to see her as anything but an amoral sociopath. We question if she does all this for love of another, or for her own freedom. You get your answer to that by film’s end.

It should be noted there is a scene in which a horse is shot. The plot point is necessary to the film but the scene is done with particular brutality and is rather graphic. Those sensitive to animal suffering should be forewarned before going to see this. I found it unnerving myself although it is I must admit effectively staged, giving the audience an idea just how cold-blooded Katherine and Sebastian have become to that point.

That end is nothing like what you’ll expect. I don’t know how close it is to the ending of the original Nikolai Leskov story having never read it myself but certainly this didn’t go the way I expected. It’s certainly a lesson on class distinctions (and nobody understood that better than the citizens of Imperial Russia) but it is also a look at the effects of love as a kind of madness. As the Russians are wont to do, it is a bit of a downer but it also is a fascinating character study.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are uniformly solid. The story doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is extremely slow and the plot is occasionally bewildering.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of nudity, sex and sexuality; there’s also a scene of animal abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in England during the Regency era, the movie is actually based on a Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk by Nikolai Leskov.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mansfield Park
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brave New Jersey

Beatriz at Dinner


Wine, women and song.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, John Early, Sean O’Bryan, David Warshofsky, Enrique Castillo, Natalia Abelleyra, Soledad St. Hilaire, Amelia Borella, Debbie Kindred, Pamela Drake Wilson. Directed by Miguel Arteta

 

In 2017 the distance between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider and the moral gulf between the two has widened similarly. In many ways, it’s hard to reconcile the two; they might as well be two completely different species.

Beatriz (Hayek) is definitely one of the have-nots. She lives in a ramshackle house in Altadena, a primarily Hispanic suburb in Los Angeles along with her menagerie of dogs, cats and goats. She’s a little troubled; her beloved goat was recently killed by an angry neighbor, a goat she’d brought up to America del Norte from her small village in Mexico.

She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, supplementing her income by doing massage therapy. One of her clients is Cathy (Britton), a wealthy housewife in Laguna. Beatriz was instrumental in her daughter surviving cancer and Cathy sings the immigrant’s praises to all and sundry. When Beatriz’ car won’t start and nobody can come get her until the next day, Cathy impulsively invites her to stay overnight and attend a small dinner party her husband Evan (Early) is throwing to celebrate the successful conclusion of a business deal.

Attending is Alex (Duplass), the lawyer who helped arrange it and his wife Shannon (Sevigny) and the guest of honor, billionaire investor Doug Strutt (Lithgow) and his wife Jenna (Landecker). Strutt is one of those one percenters who gives the upper crust a bad name. He’s boorish, arrogant and a bit of a blowhard and maybe a symbol for everything that’s wrong with Trump’s America.

Beatriz recognizes Strutt but is assured that it is because he is famous; she thinks he may have been responsible for a development that decimated her home village and destroyed the way of life there that she loved, forcing her family to separate and flee. She’s not sure so she holds her suspicions to herself.

Although she is constantly mistaken for a servant, Beatriz nevertheless acts with grace and courtesy even when Doug is saying spiteful snarky things to her. She holds her temper even though at times he seems to be goading her perhaps unwittingly, pissing on every precept close to her heart. The only time the two warm up to each other is when she gives him a neck rub and sings a song for the party. But the longer the dinner party goes on, the harder it is for Beatriz to hold her tongue; eventually it becomes obvious that when the confrontation comes it is going to be spectacular.

There are certain allegorical aspects to the movie, particularly with class warfare which seems to be a favored theme in 2017. Arteta and screenwriter Mike White are careful not to turn the characters into caricatures, with each of the party attendees given depth and much room to work with. The result is an array of impressive performances but none more so than Hayek.

She has always been an underrated actress, although those who saw her in Frida know what she’s capable of and she delivers a performance here that is at least on par with that one. Deliberately going unglamorous, wearing no make-up and putting her hair in a pony tail while dressed in the somewhat frumpy uniform she wears for the cancer center, Hayek looks mousy here although even this unflattering look fails to disguise the fact that she’s one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She puts vanity aside in favor of creating a complete character and filling that empty shell with personality and life. Beatriz may be quiet and a bit on the new age-y side but she has a heart of gold.

The same can’t be said for anyone else at the party, even Cathy who proves herself to be just as material-oriented as the others there. All are busy licking Doug’s boots and heaping praise upon him as he jovially trots out potential titles for his autobiography, each one more pretentious and bombastic than the last. I’m not sure if Strutt is meant to be a stand-in for Trump but the similarities are there; the narcissism, the obsession with winning and of course the fact that he is, like Trump, a property developer. You can draw your own conclusions but the comparison isn’t a wrong one.

Lithgow who has been an amazing character actor for decades excels here. He’s made a career of playing some of the best and most despicable villains in movie history. He makes a perfect foil for Beatriz and Hayek and the two complement each other well as polar opposites. They are definitely the yin and yang of the movie and when you have two powerful performances in that position, you can’t help but have a terrific movie.

That is, until the final five minutes when an ending is delivered that stops the movie dead in its tracks. I won’t reveal specifics, only that Beatriz – a character who cherishes life – acts completely out of character not just once but twice. All the hard work that Hayek has given is sabotaged because her character is revealed to be either completely false to what we have seen, or the filmmakers decided to pull a fast one on their audience. Either way, it is disrespectful to the viewer and I sorely wish they had come up with a different way to end the film.

It’s a shame too, because this could have been one of the highlight films of the summer. As it is it’s a hidden gem that will likely pass unnoticed to the vast majority of the movie-going public who tend to get their prompts from heavy marketing campaigns and big summer blockbusters. If you’re looking for something that’s flying under the radar a bit, this is certainly one to consider. It’s just a shame that the ending makes me hesitate to recommend it wholeheartedly but I can at least count it worthy because of the performances and concepts up to that point.

REASONS TO GO: Hayek gives a remarkable performance and is supported superbly by Lithgow.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is horrible enough to nearly ruin a good movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some instances of profanity, a brief scene of drug use and a scene of unexpected and shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third collaboration between Arteta and screenwriter Mike White.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dinner
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Good Fortune: The John Paul DeJoria Story

The Wedding Plan (Laavor et hakir)


Here comes the bride!

(2016) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Noa Koler, Dafi Alferon, Oded Leopold, Ronny Merhavi, Udi Persi, Jonathan Rozen, Irit Sheleg, Amos Tamam, Oz Zehavi, Odelia Moreh-Matalon, Erez Drigues. Directed by Rama Burshtein

 

The desire to find the person to love, cherish and spend the rest of our lives with is pretty much endemic to every culture but in some ways, the Orthodox Jewish community puts a little extra emphasis on it. Single women of a certain age are subtly looked down upon as if there is something defective about them.

Michal (Koler) is a 32-year-old convert to the Breslov sect of Hassidic Judaism. She is a veteran of the dating scene in Israel and has the emotional scars to prove it. Finally, though, it seems like she’s found the man of her dreams – Gidi (Drigues). Michal has arranged to rent the catering hall of Shimi (Tamam) and they are sampling some of the food that is offered for various wedding parties when Gidi drops a bombshell; he doesn’t love her.

Although the wedding is off, Michal decides to keep the booking at the catering hall for the eighth night of Hanukkah. She’s tired of the searing looks that she gets from married women bringing their children to the mobile petting zoo she runs (I didn’t know that was a thing) and the nagging of her mother (Sheleg). She wants to settle down and be with someone she can share the rest of her life with and if God could part the Red Sea, He could find her a husband.

But she figured God helps those who helps themselves so she sets herself up a matchmaker who sets her up on dates with Hassidic men, each less suitable than the last. She decides to take a break to visit the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (founder of her particular sect)  in the Ukraine and overcome with emotion, prostrates herself on the grave. She is comforted by Yoss (Zehavi), an Israeli indie rock singer who sets many a female heart to fluttering. Although she is star-struck, she strikes up a relationship with the man.

As the days start to dwindle towards Hanukkah, Michal continues to prepare for her wedding even though those around her are beginning to have their doubts. Shimi, who is in a marriage that has slowly begun to implode, offers what support he can and even though her deadline is approaching with her no closer to finding a groom than she was when Gidi said “I don’t,” her faith remains steadfast.

This is a movie that takes Hollywood romantic comedy conventions and turns them inside out while in some ways, remaining true to the gist of them – for example, most rom-com junkies will figure out the ending well in advance of the end credits. Still, world movie enthusiasts will appreciate the slice of like look at Israeli Hassidic culture, a world not often glimpsed even in Israeli cinema.

Koler is an engaging performer and she gives Michal just enough personality to give us a rooting interest. Michal is emotional almost to the point of hysteria in places and she spends a good deal of the movie crying. Her decisions don’t always make logical sense but she is always true to her emotional framework. Some will see this as misogynistic in the sense that the view of women is that their place in life is to be married to a husband who has essential control of the relationship but at the same time Michal is a fairly independent sort who seems to be able to take care of herself pretty well without a husband. One wonders if Burshtein who is also Hassidic is making a sly-handed comment on the somewhat archaic view of the role of women within the Hassidic community.

Like many rom-coms, the premise is unrealistic in many ways; while Michal has a great deal of faith, she also seems logical enough to understand that faith alone isn’t going to cut it. And yes, while she does take steps to find herself a groom, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between her religious faith and her independence. I’m not saying that independent women can’t be religious, only that the independent women I know tend to be practical as well and putting one’s faith in God in this manner doesn’t seem terribly practical. I honestly think this is more a commentary on how unmarried women are looked at in the Hassidic faith rather than a primer on what to do to find a husband.

In any case, I suspect that those who love romantic comedies are going to enjoy this, even though it is less a comedy than a slice of life. Those who enjoy exploring different cultures through the movies will really enjoy this. Fans of Israeli cinema will also enjoy this a great deal. Those who don’t like any of those things will likely not find much to like here, although if they are more adventurous souls who like to see movies that don’t necessarily have superheroes, aliens or car chases in them might well be pleasantly surprised.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives us some insight into the orthodox Jewish culture in Israel. American rom-com conventions are given an Israeli twist here.
REASONS TO STAY: This is somewhat unrealistic. The film is about 20 minutes too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the themes here are of an adult nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Koler and Tamam both appeared on the Israeli television show Srugim as former spouses.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 29 Dresses
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Letters from Baghdad

The Wall (2017)


Everything is more intense when you’re under fire.

(2017) War Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, Laith Nakli. Directed by Doug Liman

 

In the desert, there is not much beyond scorching sun, deep blue sky and wind-whipped sand. It is dusty, hot and dry. Humans can survive there but far from comfortably. It is a terrible place to have a war.

And yet we’ve spent the last 16 years and counting in the desert at war. In this movie, it is 2007 and the war in Iran is “winding down” as the opening credits inform us. Remembering that this is the era of the infamous “Mission Accomplished” faux pas of George W. Bush, the movie begins on a wry, humorous note. We see that there are two Marines – Shane Matthews (Cena), a sniper and “Eyes” Isaac (Taylor-Johnson), his spotter – observing a pipeline construction site. Their banter is the kind between brothers or bar buddies; occasionally vulgar, snarky for certain but affectionate nonetheless.

All the men working on the pipeline are dead. The spotter thinks they are all head shots; the sniper is not so sure. If the former is right, then there is a highly skilled sniper in the neighborhood. If the latter is correct, then it was likely an insurgent patrol that surprised the construction workers and is likely long gone. The two men have been sitting in the hot son in full camouflage for 22 hours. Matthews has about had enough. There has been no movement. Nobody is there.

He heads down to the construction site to make sure and to request that the two be picked up and returned to base. There is a crack-thump and down goes the Marine. His buddy runs out to help him and crack-thump he’s hit as well. Isaac is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall, one which is barely standing on its own and threatens to come down on top of him if the wind gets too high.

He is forced to take the bullet out of his own leg in a squirm-inducing moment and then needs to look to the survival of himself and his buddy who appears to be unconscious or dead. The outlook is grim; the radio antenna has been damaged so all he can pick up are people who are close by; his canteen has also been shot and the water drained out. The dehydration combined with his serious wound is likely to kill him before base camp comes looking for them.

At first things take a turn for the better; Isaac gets in contact with a patrol team who must be close by but when they keep asking for his exact position, he begins to get suspicious, suspicions which are confirmed when the man on the radio tells him that he is the sniper who has shot him. The two strike up a conversation; it turns out that the sniper is the legendary Juba, who has 75 confirmed American kills to his credit. He seems eager to get to know Isaac who wants nothing more than to figure out where Juba is so that he can shoot him.

It becomes a game of cat and mouse with Juba threatening to shoot off the face of Matthews if Isaac doesn’t answer the questions that Juba poses, the most important being “Why are you still here?” That’s a question Americans have been asking as well.

Liman has constructed a taut three-person movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seats from minute one. It’s a short but sweet movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome and although there is a bit of a lull in the middle, mostly keeps the tension at a high level throughout. The movie is shot so well you can almost feel the sand getting in your eyes.

There is an authentic feel to the film from a military standpoint. I’m not ex-military myself but the characters act as I would think well-trained Marines would; they are imperfect and have their moments when they let their guard down but nonetheless they (particularly Taylor-Johnson) act with a sense that the training has kicked in as the situation is assessed, immediate needs seen to and a plan to get out of a bad situation put together. We see all of this from the comfort of our theater seats (or our living room sofa as the case may be) and likely feel quite grateful that it is not us cringing beneath that poorly constructed wall.

Cena spends most of the movie lying face down in the dirt but this is maybe his best performance of his fairly brief acting career. The WWE superstar has always impressed me with his screen presence but over time he has developed some real acting skills. I’m not sure he’s at the level of a Dwayne Johnson yet but as wrestlers turned thespians go, he certainly has the tools to construct a pretty satisfying career and maybe more down the line.

Taylor-Johnson has been in my opinion on the fringe of breaking it big with some fairly good performances in fairly good movies, but nothing has really brought him to the A-list quite yet. Much of the film rests on his shoulders as he is interacting with a voice on his radio more than with a live actor as Cena is mostly unconscious in the film. That takes a lot of chops and fortunately Taylor-Johnson has them. We shall see if this finally puts him over the top and gets him that role that will elevate him into the next level.

This is a movie in which sound plays an unusually important part and Liman’s sound team comes through in spades. From the sound of the wind whipping the sand around, the crack-thump of the gunshots and the metallic bangs of the construction site, the sounds make the movie. We really don’t have a lot to look at other than endless vistas of sand and the half-finished construction site. We need the additional stimulation and we get it.

Amazon Studios helped to produce this, likely with a goal of getting their Prime users to watch this at home, but this is one of those rare movies that I think despite having an intimate setting should be seen in a theater where the outstanding sound work and impressive visuals will work best. This hasn’t gotten a ton of buzz amongst indie film fans but it deserves some. This is a very strong movie that is worth seeking out and at least here in Orlando is playing in enough theaters that there’s no excuse not to find it.

REASONS TO GO: The expected route is not taken. Taylor-Johnson and Cena; who knew? There is a lot of authenticity to this film.
REASONS TO STAY: The middle third is a little bit slow. Juba as a disembodied voice lacks menace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of salty language and a fair amount of war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nicholas Irving, the Army Rangers sniper who served as technical adviser for the film, was nicknamed “The Reaper” during his tour of duty.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Phone Booth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Last Shaman